The Ever-Changing ‘Technical Aesthetic’ and Its Influence in the Music Classroom

[16 May 2010]

By Karen Snell

There are numerous places in society that illustrate how technology’s rapid progression over the last several decades has changed the way people approach listening to and creating music. There are certain sites in society, however, where these changes have not been reflected in kind; for the most part, school music classrooms are one such place.

Young people today not only approach listening to music in distinct ways from their parents and teachers, they have also formed vitally different understandings of what it means to be a performer, composer, arranger, and even a music fan, something that I refer to as their individual ‘technical aesthetic’. 

To help illustrate what I mean by this, think about how 50 years ago, ‘being able to drive’ meant driving a standard transmission, while nowadays knowledge of stick shift driving is not implied in the same statement. For those of us who do drive a stick shift, we know that these are two fairly different driving experiences; certainly, we accomplish the same task of ‘driving’, but the ways we interact with the vehicle and thus the experience itself is different.

Along similar lines, in today’s music world, modern technology has significantly altered conceptions of what it means to, for example, compose and arrange music. The door has not only been opened to broader concepts of composing and arranging because of the accessibility and ease that now comes with sampling other people’s music in order to create new and interesting sounds, but these kinds of changes have actually paved the way for fans and listeners to become more involved in these kinds of musical creations, to interact with music in fundamentally different ways than people did only ten or 15 years ago. New technology, thus, creates new concepts of what we can and should do to make, enjoy, and interact with music — new technical aesthetics.

So what does it mean that the current generation of adolescents, and the generations coming up behind them, has a much different technical aesthetic than many of the adults in their lives, including their music teachers? What does this mean for the dynamics of the contemporary music classroom?

Based on what I have seen in my eight years of teaching in elementary, middle and high schools, as well as the last several years when I have been involved with music teacher training at the university level, too many current music teachers continue to teach students in many of the same ways they were taught themselves: singing or playing out-dated arrangements in traditional choirs, bands, or orchestras; playing singing games with old-fashioned folk or children’s songs; or focusing exclusively on Western-art music. Imagine, however, what kinds of interesting changes could take place to school music programs if current music educators started to seriously consider how the changing technical aesthetic has potentially influenced their students’ musical understandings?

The New Technical Aesthetic

The speed and access of digital downloading has clearly increased exponentially over the last several years making it very easy for most people to explore a variety of musical styles and genres at the touch of a button. The way people interact with music in this downloading culture is also quite different from the ways people interacted with recorded music during the LP and CD eras, not only because of the way music is now accessed, but also because it is something that is geared more towards the consumption of individual songs rather than full albums. Single tracks are more often sold and downloaded online nowadays than are full albums.  My nieces—aged 11 and 14—are not even aware of the number of albums on their iPods or cell phones; they regularly compare their song totals, however.

This become less surprising when considering some of the most prominent (or default) features in iTunes and other popular MP3 programs. The numbers of songs present in ones’ MP3 music library in iTunes is something that is presented clearly within this program, while there is no easy access to a similar feature for numbers of full albums. Likewise, when playing music through iTunes or similar programs on a computer, songs are more often than not listed in one long list with one album following right after the other in alphabetical order. Surely there must be others who are bothered by the fact that this is quite often the default feature for many of these programs? I find it odd to have to search for routes around having one album play after the other without stopping.  Why does this technology put us in the position of having to work to retain our choice? These types of ‘default settings’ are changing the ways people listen and interact with music, with many people not paying close attention and just listening to whatever album comes next in alphabetical order.

Unfortunately, I believe this kind of feature discourages listeners from actively selecting what they would like to hear next. The choice of what to play next is also often a moot point when considering features like ‘shuffle’ or when listening to pre-selected DJ sets, also more recent phenomena. In my experience with watching how some younger people interact with these kinds of features, more often than not, they seem to engage with the ways the system is set up rather than explore how to configure it differently.

So, what do these differences in how contemporary youth access and listen to music mean for music teachers in schools? I think teachers need to get students more involved in the process of selecting music to perform and/or listen to in school music classes and performing ensembles. As they do this, they will be helping students to become more critical about making these decisions and therefore (hopefully!) inspiring more students to move beyond the ‘pre-selection’ implicit in the default features of today’s music technology.

Bringing back the concept of a thoughtfully created mixtape by having students create a full playlist of songs for a particular setting, mood, or event, complete with ‘liner notes’ (or oral) justifications of why one song should follow the other and/or an explanation of the overall mood or effect they are trying to create could be quite interesting assignments for school (in fact, I wish I could have done this assignment myself in high school). Moving from pieces in certain moods or tempos to others with contrasting elements and the effects this can create might not be something some contemporary youth have considered in any serious way. These kinds of assignments could also be easily extended for more experienced students to include mixing software. Students could also be in charge of designing programs of music they can then perform in different venues and with various audiences: more formal concerts at the school for parents or community members; community outreach performances at schools with younger children, retirement homes, hospitals; coffee houses or open mic nights, etc.

It was different for anyone who was a child or adolescent prior to the advent of MP3 players because deciding what to play next within a collection of albums was a major part of each listening experience. When thinking about picking out albums to play in my youth, as Eric Casero similarly discussed in his recent essay “Mental Machine Music” in this same series, I picture myself physically flipping through the albums in my crates one after the other until a particular cover caught my eye. Part of this decision also involved which album side to play in the first place, as well as whether to flip the LP or tape to the other side. (Without a doubt, there are certain times when one wants to hear the second side of Bowie’s Heroes and other times when side one is the clear choice.) For particular albums, the division of songs between sides and the recording techniques used to mix one song into the other within each record side were quite important for both artists and fans (many Pink Floyd albums, for instance, fall into this category). A bar in my home town actually had Abbey Road as a selection in the juke box, as though playing “Carry That Weight” as a single track ever makes any sense. Some CD players even go so far as to insert a second or two pause between each track, something that lends itself quite well to this more modern ‘individual song’ culture, but clearly destroys the fluidity of the album recording.

The huge rise in popularity of first Walkmans, followed by MP3 players, has also contributed to the ‘individual song’ culture. As Iain Chambers discusses in “The Aural Walk”, these devices provide us with a portable soundtrack for our everyday lives, something that is, above all, an intensely private experience. This private nature of the listening experience with portable players is something that was certainly less prevalent in the years before the Walkman when young people would often listen to records with friends in their bedrooms or basements. However, although listeners today will often use MP3 players to create what Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer might still refer to today as ‘individual soundscapes’ as they walk around on their own, ride public transit, etc., in other ways, these devices are also now being used in ways to help connect young people together.

Take for example the fairly recent fad of ‘iPod parties’ (sometimes also called ‘wePod’), which are social gatherings with music played through these seemingly very personal, individual units at their core. Clearly, current adolescents find connections to peers and subcultures via listening to popular and other music, but they find these connections in quite different ways than teenagers from previous generations. Exploring these ideas in school music has the potential to help students (and teachers!) better understand the progression that music and technology has made over the past few decades and the impact these changes have made on the ways young people of each successive generation continue to use music as important parts of their social lives both in and outside the school walls.

Computers Mean Music Is Everywhere

Even more important than these kinds of consumption and listening practices however, is the increased accessibility contemporary youth have to computers in terms of sampling, arranging, and composition software. Some young people are even exploring how to record homemade compositions and performances, something that is much easier to do today than it was just a few years ago. As a result, the boundaries between contemporary popular music consumption, production, composition, and performance are often now quite blurred. Someone who may think of themselves as simply a music fan and not a performer or composer at all, may still experiment with some of these sampling, mixing, and/or recording technologies. These advancements in technology make it easy and economical for virtually anyone to produce single tracks or even full, polished CDs. As Carlos Rodriguez points out in his book Bridging the Gap: Popular Music and Music Education, this important trend has altered the traditional concept of a few people who produce music and the majority who consume it and in the process, it has allowed today’s adolescents to become active contributors to popular music culture.

This active contribution can go even further when young people experiment with performance techniques on traditional popular music instruments such as electric guitars, keyboards, voice and drums, as well as with turntables — now clearly considered musical instruments (and rightly so!) — and consider how these can interact in interesting ways with technology, something that may lead to the creation of new and interesting sounds.  Rodriguez explains: “For instance, feedbacking, bass ‘slapping,’ turntabling, sampling, deejaying, and a host of other performing techniques were not the products of high-level performance practice but arose from a search by novices and professional alike for new, compelling sounds from available resources.” There are clearly many more students in today’s classrooms who are knowledgeable about these processes and have experimented with music and technology in some of these ways than there were not too long ago. Rarely though, do we see music teachers in school tapping into this great breadth of knowledge and experience from their students in these areas.

In my mind’s eye I can picture a school music classroom where the importance of these kinds of technologies and performance/creative practices are acknowledged, greatly broadening and deepening what and how music is taught, and, in the process, creating an exciting place where students and teachers learn from each other through music in a variety of contemporary and meaningful ways. I venture to guess, however, that for most youth, school music is hardly this kind of innovative and exciting locale. If we really want this to happen, if teachers are really going to consider their students’ new technical aesthetic in any kind of in-depth way, some serious questions will need to be addressed.

Music teachers need to critically reflect on the kinds of instruments and genres they choose to teach students in schools. How well do our current educational choices connect with, compliment, and expand the ways children and adolescents are interacting with music in their daily lives outside the school? Are traditional band, orchestral, and choral programs really the best choices for all young people in current music education classes? I am convinced that considering these kinds of questions is a positive step toward making music in schools more relevant for more students — something I hope all educators would support. Exploring more current and flexible instrumentation like guitars, keyboards, and turntables, in diverse group sizes, and how to utilize new technologies within these and other new teaching and learning contexts, hold real potential for music education if it is to become more current and relevant for contemporary youth.

We do need to be careful though. Technology is not something that should be ‘automatically’ or ‘unquestioningly’ included in music education. As Janet Mansfield points out, government standards for music education, for instance, too often endorse technology whole-heartedly (and often very generally, which is clearly not helpful for teachers) as something that is completely positive or unproblematic. It’s important to keep things in perspective, however; before the use of many of the new technologies described in this article became commonplace, for instance, musical creativity took quite different forms. For example, in what ways is composing a piece of music with a software package different from composing a piece by ear with instrument in hand or with pencil and paper at a keyboard? None of these approaches is necessarily better, but they each certainly tap into different kinds of creativity and varied processes of musical creation. Educators need to keep these ideas in mind when planning a variety of different activities in their classrooms.

As music education scholar Patrick Jones points out, over-using technology may deprive students of experiencing certain other kinds of creative processes. Educators should also consider questions such as: Who has access to technology and who does not, and what does this mean when teaching various genres/styles of music? Educators need to be careful about assuming access to or knowledge about computers, electronic instruments, or even MP3 players and cell phones, especially among particular student populations. Along similar lines, using technology to teach certain kinds of world music might not be the most appropriate or ‘authentic’ choice. What are the differences between musical and technological literacy and how can they complement one another? When music is assembled in the absence of ‘other people’ (e.g., by one person at a computer), what does this mean in terms of how we view the importance of things like: the body, group dynamics, and communication in music and creation?

In other words, all of the technological advancements discussed in this article (and others like them that will undoubtedly arise in years to come) should not just be accepted into music education without making sure they are included in ways that help students to deepen their musical understanding.

Considering how newer technologies can positively affect music education is also not something that should negate the inclusion of older musical genres, instrumentation, and technologies as important parts of school music as well. Indeed, educators should help students to navigate and understand the differences between past and more current ways of listening to and creating music. Exploring some of these differences through varied listening and performance practices — or the different ‘technical aesthetic’ of each generation — and even by combining some of these practices in new and interesting ways, could be quite exciting ways for young people to learn about music. Creating interesting lessons around these ideas could broaden students’ musical horizons and their understanding of certain practices and artists, while making them aware of the ways that producing and listening to music have changed over a relatively short period of time and thus causing them to take notice of their own technical aesthetic. Encouraging students to experiment with the more currently fluid notions of what constitutes the roles of listener/fan, performer, arranger, composer, producer, etc., holds real promise in terms of broadening the concept of what constitutes music and musicianship in schools. Imagine the kinds of opportunities we could provide for students to interact with music and technology in each of these roles?

Incorporating the use of computers and opportunities to interact and experiment with programs that involve sampling, mixing, arranging, composing and/or recording will also not only tap into the kinds of musical and technological knowledge and experiences students are acquiring on their own outside of school, but also have the potential to incorporate creativity into school music in new, relevant, and exciting ways.

If more music educators could see their way to make these kinds of changes in their educational planning and practice, I truly believe that school music programs would benefit from a corresponding increase in enrollment and a resulting greater influence in the lives of young people today.

Karen Snell graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a Ph.D. in music education in 2007. She has an MMus in music education from the University of Toronto. She has more than 8 years of public school teaching experience in instrumental and vocal music, French and special education. She has taught graduate level music education courses at Boston University in the philosophy of music education, aesthetics and criticism and curriculum development. As an active speaker and publisher, she has written and presented papers in a variety of areas including: the informal learning strategies of popular musicians, turntablism, popular ‘hybrid’ musics in music education, and democracy in music education.

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